A History of WHAMOBASS -- Preparations --
Aloft with the balloons -- a Happy Return

WHAMOBASS (www.whamobass.org) is the world's longest continuously running ballooning event: 2001 marked its 37th year.  Originally started in conjunction with the Stanford-Cal football game, the event now takes place in November, in the small town of Coalinga in California's agricultural San Joaquin valley.  Animal rights activists should note that WHAMOBASS actually stands for Whiskey Hill - Atherton - Menlo Oaks Ballooning and Sporting Society -- no fish are harmed in the making of the balloon rally. Whamobass.gif (4636 bytes)
I was encouraged to do a cluster balloon flight at WHAMOBASS by Jay Jennings, a balloonist from Northern California, whom I'd met while giving a presentation about cluster ballooning the previous year.  Deke Sonnichsen, the balloonmeister for WHAMOBASS, and the Pacific Coast Aeronauts, the Northern California balloon club organizing the event, graciously agreed to the flight.  Tim Braly, a resident of Coalinga and friend of Jay, made arrangements to obtain helium tanks, and helped with other logistics.  My friends Ernie Hartt, Jenny Wolf and Jerry Sebby  joined me from San Diego to help keep me out of trouble.

The inflation began at 4:30 AM, two hours before sunrise, on the athletic field at West Hills College.

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Inflation in the dark
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My chariot awaits

Jay had recruited about a dozen balloonists and balloon crew attending the rally to help with the inflation, but almost double that number showed up.

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Just before dawn, I got into my harness.  My crew pulled together the various layers of balloons in the cluster and attached them to me.

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Jenny was waiting with her hot-air balloon to follow me for air-to-air photos. The plan was for us to launch first, before the rest of the hot-air balloons.

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Ernie held onto my tether, ready to let me go...

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And up I went.

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People on the field were waving, and a few shouted "Good-bye, John!" 


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I floated up over West Hills College and the quiet early morning town.

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The day was a bit overcast and hazy, with heavier fog out to the West.  I had taken off at a leisurely 250 feet per minute.  I decided to maintain that rate of climb, and settled in to enjoy the smooth silent ascent of the balloons and the slowly widening view of the town and the surrounding farmland.  Soon I was several thousand feet up.


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Down on the ground, the other balloons were starting to launch.

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Jenny and another balloon followed me up.

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At four thousand feet, we could make out the top of the layer of haze.

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Finally, at five thousand feet we rose into sunlight and a pale blue sky.


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The sun touched the mountaintops to the West, and lit bright reflections on the huge mass of balloons over my head.


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Jenny was getting cold and decided to head back down. 

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But it was such a pretty day I couldn't resist going a little higher.

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Finally, at seven thousand feet, I burst some balloons to level out, and then a few more to set up a slow descent of 100 - 200 feet per minute.  The haze was beginning to burn off below.  I spent half an hour admiring the view while I drifted slowly back toward earth.

The winds were light that day.  During my ascent, I had gone a mile or two to the northwest, now was moving a few miles back south.   Where I was descending, I would be a mile south and a few blocks west of the field at the college where I had lifted off.

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  Watching the other balloons, I could see that at four or five hundred feet above the surface, there was a wind heading northbound, and that closer to the ground, the wind was moving more toward the northeast.  It looked like I might be able to return to the launch field -- a cool thing for a balloonist to do, and something I'd never done with a cluster balloon before. 

I monitored my altitude, and when I was at a thousand feet, I began slowing my descent by releasing a little of my water ballast.  Leveling out at about four hundred feet, I began moving north across the town, on a line that would take me just west of the college.  After ten minutes,  when I was a few blocks away from the campus, I released a few balloons to descend to a two hundred feet.  The northeast-bound wind I had seen angled me right toward the college. 

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On approach to the launch field

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There turned out to be more eastbound than northbound lower down, so I missed my exact takeoff spot, but dropped in over the tennis courts at the far end of the athletic fields.  Jerry was waiting there, and used the line I dropped to him to pull me across the field to where I had taken off an hour and forty minutes earlier.  As it turned out, I was the only pilot to fly back to the launch field that day. 

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Back at the launch site
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With Tim Braly and Jay Jennings

As the other balloonists and crews returned to the field in their chase vehicles, we spent a hour letting people  get in my harness and go up on tether.  Then we deflated the balloons and put them away for future flights.

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Celebration IX

Crew Chief: Ernie Hartt
Chief Engineer and Chase Driver: Jerry Sebby
Chase Balloon Pilot: Jenny Wolf
Logistics: Tim Braly, Jay Jennings
Aerial photography and videography: Dagny Sprouse, Tony Braly
Chase Crew: Rick Clement
Thanks to Deke Sonnichsen, Jeanne Anson, Cricket Clark, and the Pacific Coast Aeronauts (Tom Sharpee, Chairman).
Extra special thanks to everyone who helped with the inflation!   I'm always amazed by the willingness of otherwise sane people to get up in the middle of the night to blow up balloons so I can fly -- although most of those involved are balloon pilots and crew, so maybe the "sane" part isn't totally accurate.
Photographs by Jenny Wolf, Jerry Sebby and John Ninomiya.

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